Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review – a winning spell

JK Rowling whisks us back to the wizarding world of 1920s New York, helped by a star turn from Eddie Redmayne

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have seen New York destroyed in the cinema. There’s something about the city’s iconic status that seems to invite film-makers to trash it. But just when you think you have seen every conceivable version of skyscraper-toppling movie mayhem, a gigantic creature that looks like a mutated rhinoceros thunders through Central Park zoo in search of love. The joy of this spin-off from the Harry Potter-verse is that by viewing it through a Hogwarts-tinted lens we rediscover the magical allure of Manhattan at its most grubby and gothic. It’s no accident that two of the antagonists in the picture are the people who are endeavouring to clean the city up.

Bustling 1920s New York is gorgeously realised by a judicious teaming of regular Potter designer Stuart Craig and urban dystopia specialist James Hambridge (Hellboy, The Dark Knight), while four-time Potter director David Yates transitions effortlessly from Hogwarts to the wider world, thanks in part to a deft screenplay by JK Rowling.

The main injection of fresh blood is into the cast. A prequel of sorts, the film takes as its starting point the origins of the wizarding school textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As the book’s author, Newt Scamander, Eddie Redmayne gives an endearingly gauche turn. All pigeon-toed angles and stuttering rushes of enthusiasm, his great gift to the character is a crippling diffidence. He delivers much of his dialogue staring at people’s shoes or elbows, only risking the shyest of self-effacing glances to meet their eyes. He’s part earnest conservationist in the David Attenborough mould, part hapless innocent in the vein of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, and Newt has barely arrived in America before he finds himself in trouble with the Magical Congress (Macusa).

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trailer

The problem is his luggage. Or rather the contents of his luggage. Newt carries with him a menagerie of extraordinary creatures, including the rampaging rhino; an invisible sloth-type thing and a kleptomaniac duck-billed platypus. But recapturing his escaped beasts, with the help of disgraced Macusa employee Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle (or no-maj, in the American parlance) turns out to be the least of Newt’s worries. Dark forces are at work in New York.

This highly entertaining twist on jazz age America breathes fresh life into the Potter franchise – and, with its themes of society divided and the persecution of minorities, the film finds itself to be perfectly timed.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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